Risen from the Dust
Now we have laid the foundation to examine and comprehend what is perhaps the most misused excerpt from all of scripture, the infamous 1st Thessalonians 4.13-17. 1st Thessalonians 4.13-17 is a goldmine of information about the first resurrection of the dead, its timing, and how it relates to the return of Christ. Unfortunately, these revelations have been nullified by it being almost universally wrongly divided, and interpreted out of context, without any regard for the rest of scripture. Let's set the record straight on this critical section.
"But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope" (1st Thessalonians 4.13 KJV bible). Paul does not want Christians to be ignorant about the ones who sleep, which is to say their brethren who have died in the flesh. Neither does he want them to grieve as the nonbelievers do, who aren't sure whether their loved ones have moved on to a better place, or are dead in the ground.
"For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him" (1st Thessalonians 4.14 KJV bible). If we believe that Jesus died and rose again, then we know that there is something greater than this flesh life. This first part is straightforward, and addresses the importance of faith. However, the next part is more involved when it says that those who "sleep in Jesus will God bring with him". To rightly divide this, we must first recognize who are the ones sleeping in Jesus. Notice how it says nothing about those who sleep in the dust, or in the tombs, as those words don't even appear in the chapter. This is because its not talking about all of the dead, but only the saints who have died in the flesh, and are with Christ in heaven. Paul says that the ones who "sleep in Jesus will God bring with him", which is to say, it is the plan and will of God, that the saints who are in Paradise will return to earth with Christ.
This is affirming for us that at the second coming of Christ, the saints will follow him back to earth. They will join with the angels in comprising his holy army, which will gather at the seventh trumpet to route the enemies of the cross, and establish righteousness on Earth, "And he was clothed with a vesture dipped in blood: and his name is called The Word of God. And the armies which were in heaven followed him upon white horses, clothed in fine linen, white and clean. And out of his mouth goeth a sharp sword, that with it he should smite the nations: and he shall rule them with a rod of iron: and he treadeth the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God" (Revelation 19.13-15 KJV bible). This gathering and great victory of the saints at the second advent, is what Paul is saying that Christians should be hopeful and expectant for.
"For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent [precede] them which are asleep" (1st Thessalonians 4.15 KJV bible). Check out this word "prevent" in the Greek, as it means to go beforehand, or to precede. Thus, the ones who are alive and remain will not precede those who are asleep. Notice how it says, "until the coming of the Lord", which should leave little doubt in your mind that this is talking about the second coming of Christ. Then who are these ones that are alive and remain until the second coming? They are the faithful ones of the final generation who are still alive on Earth at the time of Christ's return. They will in no way "precede" the saints who are in heaven. Exactly what they will not precede them in is answered in the next verse.
"For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first" (1st Thessalonians 4.16 KJV bible). It says that, "the dead in Christ shall rise first", which brings us to the subject of the entire passage, the first resurrection of the dead. The earthly saints shall in no way precede the heavenly saints, in the first resurrection of the dead. This is because the dead in Christ are raised first, before those who are alive and remain. Remember, "In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed" (1st Corinthians 15.52 KJV bible). All of the saints will receive spiritual bodies at the first resurrection, but the dead in Christ are changed first, perhaps only a few minutes before the ones living in the final generation.
"For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God..." (1st Thessalonians 4.16 KJV bible). The beginning part of this verse serves to further illustrate how the event will take place. With the shout of the archangel (most likely Michael), and the final trumpet of God, the Lord Jesus Christ will appear in the sky at the spiritual midway between heaven and earth. Then the dead in Christ will rise up, not out of the ground, but spiritually in heaven (see ch.20 Resurrection at Christ's Return). Then they will assemble alongside him to fill in the ranks of his mighty army. This will happen with both a shout, and the trumpet of God.
Remember from the siege of Jericho, that at the seventh sounding of the trumpets, and only at the seventh sounding, the Israelites let out a great shout or war cry, and the wall came crashing down, "Ye shall not shout, nor make any noise with your voice, neither shall any word proceed out of your mouth, until the day I bid you shout; then shall ye shout...and it came to pass, when the people heard the sound of the trumpet, and the people shouted with a great shout, that the wall fell down flat" (Joshua 6.10,20 KJV bible). Likewise, at the return of Christ, the seventh trumpet blast will coincide with a great shout or battle cry, "For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God" (1st Thessalonians 4.16 KJV bible), and the fortification of lies surrounding the empire of the beast will fall down flat. Then the legions of light will assemble and press forward, seizing the kingdoms of this world, and putting all things in subjection to the Living Word.
"Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord" (1st Thessalonians 4.17 KJV bible). As the Son of Man stands in the breach between Paradise and earth, the dead in Christ will rise and assemble to him first. Then the ones who are alive and remain on Earth will be transformed, and caught up together with them.
The New Testament provides us with a second witness for this scenario, "For our conversation is in heaven; from whence also we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ: Who shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body, according to the working whereby he is able even to subdue all things unto himself" (Philippians 3.20-21 KJV bible). At the appearance of Christ, and not before it, those who are alive and remain will be transformed by the power which he has to subdue all things to himself. Then, they will be picked up off the ground, and transported into the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air, "...shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord" (1st Thessalonians 4.17 KJV bible). The critical point is that they meet or rendezvous with Jesus in the air, because it is the halfway point between heaven and earth. Nowhere does it say or imply that they disappear with him into heaven. This false information is often inserted into the text, with complete disregard for its context and message.
We've established that 1st Thessalonians 4 is referring to the second coming of Christ on the Day of the Lord. The reason that Christ's elect are lifted off the ground is because he assembles them in the sky to prepare for the final battle, "And then shall he send his angels, and shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from the uttermost part of the earth to the uttermost part of heaven" (Mark 13.27 KJV bible), (see also Matthew 24.30). They are caught up into the air to take their place among the ranks of Christ's army, and after this point in time, they will never again be separated from him. This will be the moment of redemption for the purchased possession (Ephesians 1.1-14). At this time the faithful will be united with Christ as firstfruits unto God forever and ever, whether on earth or in heaven (see ch.15 Resurrection of the Body).
Finally, notice how it says that they are caught up "in the clouds". This might seem to be indicating that they are taken away into heaven, but in actuality it is a reference to the second advent. Notice how the scriptures often describe Jesus returning to earth with the clouds of heaven, "Behold, he cometh with clouds; and every eye shall see him" (Revelation 1.7 KJV bible), "And then shall they see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory" (Luke 21.27 KJV bible). Christ will return with the clouds of heaven, because they are representative of the exalted majesty of his eternal Kingdom, which the saints will be raised into as fellow heirs.
"Wherefore comfort one another with these words" (1st Thessalonians 4.18 KJV bible). Therefore, take comfort in this great reunion of the saints, both living and dead, that will take place when Christ returns.
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